Thursday, May 29, 2008

A note on bias & spin, using the context of McCain's Health.

You've probably all heard about McCain's recent divulging of his health care records. I tend to think this is a topic of little importance: if something were to happen to John McCain as president, rendering him incapable of performing his duties or perhaps dead, we'd find another president. The president should be determined by the criteria of who will do the job best.

Of course, as we've also heard, the means by which he revealed his health information to the press gave many suspicions. There were 1,173 pages of health records, and the press were allowed three hours to view them with no cameras, phones, or internet access. The three hours occurred on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, when (presumably) people aren't paying as close attention to the national news. The suggestion is, of course, that there was some intent to conceal or at least downplay some of the contents of these records. Stated positively (as many did), it displays McCain's media savvy.

So, to cite today's google search of "McCain Health" provides the following at the top:
McCain's Physicians Say He Is in Excellent Health
Wall Street Journal - May 23, 2008
McCain's health. Evidence of melanoma surgery in 2000 is obvious to anyone who sees his puffy left cheek and prominent scar. The campaign has made efforts ...
McCain medical records show skin cancer concern, healthy heart
McCain deemed fit to serve Baltimore Sun
McCain's Medical History: What Will it Show? ABC News

Mostly positive, with mention of his melanoma history. Further down you can find a longer list of his health concerns.

So, I'd like to propose that there are three major categories of news regarding this story:

  • Positive things about McCain's health ("fit to serve!" "healthy heart!")

  • Negative things about McCain's health ("melanoma!" "kidney stones!")

  • Things about how this information was presented to the press

I'd be curious, first of all, who of the general population had been exposed to any of the contents of those categories without being exposed to all three. Though the summarizations mostly focus on the first category, I saw no news story that didn't cover all three categories. I would suspect that those people who didn't hear either of the latter two categories of information likely have not payed attention to the story at all, though I certainly have no data to suggest this.

So let's again presume that any bias in the media could run in two directions: those favoring McCain would ideally only mention the first category, those against would ideally only mention the latter two. Those who argue for either side would consider the mention of the opposing category to be indicative of, well, the other side's bias, i.e., "Cover the way McCain released this information to the press, will you? Typical Liberal Media!" Again, remember, all the categories do contain accurate facts.

The conclusion and thesis (and perhaps, hopefully, a guiding principle in covering news here) will be that bias and context are inversely related, i.e., to reduce the bias of your media outlet, increase the context in the stories. Cover all three categories regarding McCain's health records. Conducting research? Reveal and report who payed for the research. Reporting on a poll? Say how the questions were worded. In each of these cases, this greater amount of information may seem as though it is spun, if only because it is reducing the previous spin of omitting that information. But the spin of greater information cannot be considered true spin, it is only the continuation down the path of the limit function toward objectivity.

This does, however, only cover the bias category of omission: deciding which facts to report and which not to given a limited amount of time. Other bias might include linguistic bias, which is inherent in the words chosen, or perhaps just the language used. And once we consider how much of human thought depends upon the language we are taught, we see how far away we are from objectivity on the aforementioned limit function.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Budget Hero

Play Budget Hero, provided by Marketplace of American Public Media.

Note that many environmental measures can have an overall effect of shrinking federal government, and actually tend to function as a revenue booster rather than a revenue spender.

I also didn't score to well with health care (it was my first try!) but I'd also like to think that the game underestimated the effect of environmental policy on people's health and well being. Not that I'd expect that to take care of most health care costs; I'd probably take a little more money from defense than the game allowed.

Robert Reich agrees

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich agrees with Mankiw regarding the carbon policy proposals of both Obama and McCain.

Though Mankiw quotes McCain saying that perhaps an auction could occur "over time," Reich gives him less benefit of a doubt. The latter uses rhetoric that cites common property rights, i.e. "our atmosphere belongs to all of us," and also cites the fantastic example of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Alaska's state government reclaims the revenues from oil produced there and invests 25% of the revenue into what is basically a mutual fund for all Alaskans. The initial investment in the fund (part of which was likely taken from a bonus received by the government upon initially leasing the oilfields) was $734,000, and it has grown to a roughly $40 billion trust fund. Citizens are given a dividend payment each year from this trust fund; last year it reached $1654. The fund is a means to represent that the land of Alaska is common property, and as it is used or depreciated by anyone, the rent should benefit all owners.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

David Brooks and his foray into neurology

I think I tend to have more respect for David Brooks than a lot of my peers, at least those I see commenting on a lot of news sites. He's been getting some attention recently from his editorial titled The Neural Buddhists, which covers some of the research that, in his opinion, finds "science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other."

Ana Marie Cox of Time magazine had the initial response of questioning Brooks's inclusion of Buddhism in the union with science -- presumably at the exclusion of other religions. Her conclusion was that he could start to sound like he was in line with anti-science propaganda*. Brooks offered his response at a Pew Forum that preceded the article, "My theory is I carry the label 'conservative,' and the label 'conservative' sets off certain neural patterns in your head that make you think that, as a conservative, I have reasonably strict spiritual beliefs or traditional religious beliefs, and therefore would be hostile to Buddhism." Admittedly, he was in the mood to describe everything in terms of neurology (which is not by any means a bad thing).

At the aforementioned Pew Forum, Brooks documented some of the conclusions of existing research quite accurately. My favorite point of his is on the subject of emotion theory: "The Doctor Spock idea from Star Trek, that reason and emotion are two different things, is completely wrong. Emotion is what we use to assign value to things, and without emotion you can’t make decisions."

Also: "There is no such thing as one individual brain. Our brains are all merged together in a series of ultimate feedback loops. So I think when you look at this research... It won’t lead to the idea that we are just material creatures and atheism is the answer."

Again, this is just a journalist summarizing the research of others, but the professor of radiology who was present at the forum had only corroborations to offer.

Speaking of belief: having never seen the man in person, it is my belief that David Brooks is roughly seven feet tall.

* - Whereas I suspected she was going to go in the direction of "anti-Christian propaganda," thus perhaps implying our unconscious allegiances. After she mentions the science-Buddhism link, she sarcastically asserts, "they're not like you and me!" implying her Christian allegiance, thus making Brooks guilty of potential anti-science (though, her allegiance is likely due to being a journalist representing the interests of a dominantly (and self-reportedly) Christian nation (the "you" of the "you and me"). My allegiance of unconsciously trusting science first led me to predict her argument would lead to an anti-Christian conclusion. Of course, if I were a Buddhist who didn't trust science, I would think it anti-Buddhist. But no matter.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Taxing recreational exercise

Partially tongue-in-cheek, but some sincere discussion of the social cost of cheap-food-derived-from-excess-carbon-use.

The tongue-in-cheek part also at least questions the idea of exercise: if our bodies were cars, we'd be filling them past the brim with gas and then occasionally driving them around the block a few times (or maybe even prop them up in the garage and run them for a while a la the ferrari in Ferris Beuller), while regularly loading the whole thing into a flatbed tow truck to get around.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"The Pigou Club gives the edge to Obama."

Greg Mankiw comments on the two (presumptive... assumptive?) presidential nominees' recent statements on environmental policy.

Mankiw's concern about McCain's position is that the auction is merely for a fraction of emissions, and is not immediate. Obama's "edge" is from his suggestion of a "hundred percent auction," which is, from lack of other qualification, presumed to be immediate.

My additional concern for both proposals is firstly: how often will it be auctioned? If, for example, a polluting factory wins an auction for 2 tons of carbon emissions in a year by paying a hundred dollars into the federal treasury*, can they continue at that rate indefinitely? or will they have to be willing to pay that hundred each year? If we are sincere in our conviction that we should begin to treat the atmosphere as common property, the community should collect regular (as in regularly scheduled) rent for its pollution or destruction.

My second concern is: who would participate, and what is the threshold for polluting that would require an auctioned permit? Would I also need an auctioned permit to run an automobile a given amount a month? And, if not, how do we intend to suggest that this will curb carbon emissions comprehensively? I would think that a solution to this second concern would be to instate a tax across hydrocarbon fuels based on the social cost of their emissions rather than auction their use, and I might guess that Mankiw would agree.

Lastly, who gets the money from the auction? Does it offset income taxes, essentially returning it to the nations citizenry, thus allowing them to (rightfully) be seen as the stockholders of the atmosphere? Does it go to the treasury, going toward the general federal budget (the majority of which is spent on three categories: social security, health programs (Medicare and Medicaid), and defense (Iraq))?

If we were to advocate a Pigouvian solution to this final question, the revenue from the auction would go towards the counteraction of the auctioned activity. Specifically speaking, to curb pollution, tax it, and then use the revenue to pay for the repairing its detrimental effects. This way, as pollution occurs less, you will need to fund its repair less, and you will receive less funding for its repair. In this spirit, health care might be an appropriate category to fund (as the pollution may exacerbate asthma or increase cancer incidence), or perhaps the replacement of carbon based infrastructure (roads with electric train lines, coal power plants with alternative sources) which will need less funding as it becomes more predominant.

I think this last concern might be the least important, as long as it doesn't go to something wasteful (Halliburton, Blackwater, starting wars in oil-rich nations) or something geared toward prolonging the existing problem (ANWR drilling, starting wars in oil-rich nations).

* I have no data to suggest that this would be a reasonable amount for a factory owner to pay. Surely, it would be determined by the cap on total emissions that the federal government instates, with a lower cap drawing higher prices. This is another benefit of the auction system: it harnesses the profit motive for the benefit of the atmosphere, as long as we instate a body (such as the federal government) that is considered the manager of the atmosphere. Specifically, if the managing body wants to raise more revenue, the easiest way to do it is to reduce the total emissions cap. In a tax system, you'd have the same effect through a different mechanism. Want more revenue? Raise the tax (and thus reduce the demand for polluting).